When Bullies Rule–and my first political rebellion

Joseph McCarthy Roy Cohen Donald Trump

A Gallery of Bullies: Joseph McCarthy, his chief counsel Roy Cohn, and Cohn’s client/best friend, Donald Trump

When bullies rule, the fear they inspire permeates all levels of society.

My first political rebellion was in 1955. I was 11 and attending junior high school in Brooklyn. The Dodgers finally won a World Series against the Yankees, their traditional enemies, and we all rejoiced. Emmet Till was murdered, and we were aghast.

I’d grown up absorbing the whispers of frightened grownups and tales of the Holocaust, reading news articles I didn’t have the background to comprehend. I remember:

The summer I was 8, picking berries in the Catskills along with an elderly neighbor, a refugee from somewhere in Eastern Europe. She kept muttering, “Subwoisive, subwoisive. Whatever you do, they call you subwoisive.” I don’t recollect whether I really understood the meaning of the word, yet the incident stayed with me— Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were riding high that year, persecuting anybody they could accuse, however falsely, of being a Communist.

The Red Scare was in full swing, and that spring the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional to force teachers to sign legally binding loyalty oaths. If you didn’t sign, you’d lose your job. I suppose if you’d been found to sign falsely, you could be prosecuted for perjury. The teachers’ union and the ACLU had opposed the law, as it infringed on freedom of speech and of association—not to mention violating common sense. As the NY Times wrote, a “really dangerous Communist would of course neither admit his affiliation nor hesitate to take the oath.”

I remember:

The summer when I was 9, reading an excruciatingly detailed description of the electrocution of the Rosenbergs. Being sickened by it, horrified, just as I was by accounts of the Holocaust, thinking that whoever wrote that article must have been gloating sadistically. Today I found and re-read the New York Daily News article from that day. It was even more vicious than my memory. I had a gut feeling—still do—that the Rosenbergs must have been picked out especially because they were Jewish. They were tried and executed for treason, despite the fact that any information Julius Rosenberg gave to the Soviets was done while we were allied with Russia against Nazi Germany—and was therefore no crime. The Jewish establishment, terrified of being associated with Communism, even joined in calling for their deaths.

And then, at age 11:

I was sitting in home room when the teacher passed out little slips of paper for us all to sign. Apparently some kids had been bringing water guns to school and squirting each other in the lunchroom or the yard. The little slips said that we understood it was forbidden to bring water guns onto school property. Once we had signed, they could use it as justification for expelling us if we violated the rule.

I was an honors student and didn’t even own a water pistol at the time. “This is exactly like a loyalty oath,” I thought, and refused to sign.

My teacher brought me down to the principal’s office. Two school officials took turns badgering me. They’d call my parents. They’d suspend me from class. I argued that I had never carried such a dangerous weapon onto the premises and didn’t intend to. I raised the loyalty oath issue. They kept me for what seemed like an hour, beating me down until I did sign.

Looking back on it, I realize that those teachers and officials had learned their lesson very well. They’d all signed the hated oath in order to keep their jobs, and now they were forcing me to sign that stupid paper in order to stay in school.

Mine was a small act of rebellion, and unsuccessful. But I came away believing that I was right, and hating and despising the teachers who’d bullied me. In that respect it was a victory, because they hadn’t brainwashed me into accepting their point of view.


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One Response to When Bullies Rule–and my first political rebellion

  1. Mary Ann July 24, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

    Thank you for this account. We must continually guard our freedoms.

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